With Sai Baba gone, Puttaparthi faces uncertainty

With Sai Baba gone, Puttaparthi faces uncertainty

From petty traders and hotel owners to real estate developers, everyone seems apprehensive. They are not sure if the town will continue to attract the number of  pilgrims it used to when Sai Baba was alive.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the country and even abroad used to flock for Sai Baba's 'darshan' every year. The number would swell on occasions like the godman's birthday and festivals.

As thousands of devotees left this town after having their last 'darshan' of Sai Baba, the locals are not sure if they will ever come again.

"We don?t know what will happen now. The business may not be the same as it used to be earlier," said M. Raj Kumar, who runs a grocery shop. Small traders, who sold pictures of Sai Baba, flowers and other items, are also a worried lot.

They recall that every day 2,000 to 3,000 people used to visit the town, in Anantapur district, for Sai Baba's darshan. This figure used to go up to 20,000 on Thursdays. The more auspicious days would attract 300,000 to 500,000 men, women and children.

With about 25,000 residents, Puttaparthy was once unknown to the outside  world and lacked even basic amenities. Sai Baba, who was born here in 1926 and claimed at age 14 that he was an avatar of god, put it on the pilgrim map by building his ashram Prshanti Nilayam.

As he became famous, pilgrims from India and abroad started flocking to the town for his discourses. The town's economy witnessed an upswing, with hotels, lodges, restaurants and shops coming up in a big way.

Located in drought-prone Anantapur, also notorious for factional violence, the town became synonymous with Sai Baba, whose teachings appealed to people of all faiths and languages.

Many eminent pilgrims, including retired bureaucrats, police officers,  judges and their family members, settled down in the town to remain close to the man they considered god.

The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, formed by Sai Baba in 1972, ran schools, a university, a super speciality hospital and other institutions, providing free education and medical treatment.

It also developed an airport to facilitate the flow of devotees including heads of states and governments as well as celebrities. Over the last two decades, the land cost in the town went up many times. Land in Puttaparthy is more costly than in Anantapur town, the district headquarter 85 km from here.

Will the town continue to see the congregations it used to during Sai Baba's lifetime?
Some traders are hopeful that devotees will keep thronging Prashanti Nilayam to pray at Sai Baba's samadhi. The Sai Central Trust plans to build a grand temple and install a statue of the godman.

It is also in the process of evolving the rituals to be conducted there. The locals, including traders, are in talks with the Trust on how to celebrate occasions like Sai Baba's birth anniversary.

Some residents are optimistic that Puttaparthi will continue to attract pilgrims in the same manner as Shirdi in Maharashtra does - for Shirdi Sai Baba.  Sathya Sai Baba had claimed to an reincarnation of the celebrated saint of 19th century.

"We don't expect the kind of crowds when Swami was there but devotees will continue to come," said R. Subba Rao, owner of a lodge.

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